Moderna just laid out its strategy to fight coronavirus variants and says a new shot is ready to be tested

Moderna vaccine
A nurse prepares a shot of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine. Hans Pennink/AP
  • Moderna is developing three different vaccine-booster methods to protect against COVID-19 variants.
  • Testing on one designed to fight the variant first found in South Africa will begin “very soon.”
  • The NIH will test the booster on a few hundred participants to collect safety data for the FDA.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

The National Institutes of Health will soon begin testing a new booster shot for Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine that could better protect people against an emerging variant, according to the biotech’s chief executive.

Moderna announced Wednesday that it had shipped a new version of its vaccine to the National Institutes of Health – exactly one year after it handed over its first COVID-19 vaccine candidate. A clinical trial will involve a few hundred participants and will begin “very soon,” Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel told Insider. 

The new shot is one of several strategies Moderna is exploring to address virus variants, including one that first appeared in South Africa in October and has been found in at least 10 US states. This variant, known as B.1.351, includes several mutations to the spike protein that experts fear will make it less susceptible to the vaccines on the market.

Stephane Bancel
Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel. Steven Ferdman/Getty Images

Moderna is also developing two other booster shots, the company said. But the company’s chief executive said it was not considering reducing its two-shot vaccine to a one-shot regimen anytime soon. The idea has gained traction as a way to reach more people, but Bancel said there wasn’t enough data to know if a single shot would protect people long term.

Moderna has said that its vaccine protects people against the variant first found in South Africa and others that have begun popping up across the globe. Nonetheless, the biotech began developing a new version of its shot last month. Pfizer is also developing booster shots targeted at COVID-19 variants. 

Bancel is also keeping a close eye on the variant that has emerged in California and said Moderna would create a shot for that variant if needed.

“Moderna is very committed. I tell every head of state: We will chase every variant of concern, period. If we have to chase 10 in the next 10 months, we’ll chase 10. We have the capability. We have infrastructure,” Bancel said. 

Moderna may swap out its existing COVID-19 vaccine for a new version

The booster shots are just one way Moderna plans to tackle new virus variants. The company is also developing new initial vaccines: one targeted at B.1.351 and another that combines its existing vaccine and the B.1.351 version.

If either of those shots prove more effective than the vaccine Moderna is distributing now, the company will phase out distribution of the old version in favor of a new shot, Bancel said. 

That shouldn’t dissuade people from getting vaccinated now, the chief executive added.

“We’re developing these out of an abundance of caution,” he said. “But nobody in the world can tell whether this vaccine will be effective six months to 12 months away, with new variants. We cannot be behind. We have to be ahead of the game.”

These next six months of curbing the coronavirus could prove challenging, Bancel added. The Southern Hemisphere will soon head into the cold winter months, which present prime conditions for a virus to mutate. Other viruses like influenza tend to flourish in cold weather. Two of the variants that are already causing concern were first identified in the Southern Hemisphere, and its possible more variants could be coming, he said.

Moderna is pledging to manufacture 1.4 billion vaccine doses next year

With plans for booster shots in place, Moderna has boosted its 2022 production goal from 1.2 billion doses worldwide to 1.4 billion – a 16% increase.

The biotech, which was still in its research stage before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, has quickly built up its commercial manufacturing capacity. But it and its fellow vaccine maker Pfizer have run into lag time and pledged a massive increase in production in the coming months.

Moderna has delivered about 54 million doses of its coronavirus vaccine in the US, Stephen Hoge, the company’s president, told members of Congress on Tuesday. Pfizer has provided about 40 million, the company said.

The companies are expected to deliver a combined 600 million doses by the end of July – a goal representatives from both companies told Congress they would be able to hit.